Making ‘Rent’

Almost 80 aspiring cast members audition for roles in the musical about struggling artists in ’80s New York

By Johanna Kaiser
Globe Correspondent / February 11, 2010

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Tommy Jerdon paced in uneven strides along the wall of the cinderblock hallway leading backstage. Glancing up occasionally at the people waiting to audition before him, he mumbled a song to himself, then paused, sighed, and started over whenever the tune wasn’t just right.

His right hand swayed in harmony, conducting his song, while his left, half-hidden in his jacket sleeve, relentlessly curled a small piece of paper.

One by one, the actors went on stage, and after one actress walked briskly by after finishing her performance, only Jerdon was left. It was his turn.

Jerdon, who is from Weymouth, was one of almost 80 aspiring actors and dedicated fans to flood The Company Theatre in Norwell last month to audition for a part in the production of “Rent,’’ the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that follows a group of struggling artists living in Greenwich Village during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s.

The Company Theatre is only the second in the state (after the Orpheum Theatre Foxboro) to produce this iconic rock musical since it ended its 12-year run on Broadway in 2008. The rare chance to perform in what many called “dream roles’’ had actors from the South Shore and beyond crammed into the theater’s green room ready to be the next Joanne, Roger, or Mark.

“I just want to sort of rock out in a part that I’ve performed many, many times in my bedroom since a very young age,’’ said Samantha Brior-Jones of Bridgewater, an aspiring Mimi, whose black, backless shirt and chipped black polish on her fingernails fit in with the energetic but casual mood of the youthful crowd.

Actors huddled in groups of friends, while former cast mates laughed about previous shows and frantically discussed their hopes for this one. The room boomed with chatter and small bursts of singing from actors stretching their vocal cords.

A young man with long curly hair sauntered through the crowd, slowly strumming his guitar and taking requests. A young woman applied and reapplied thick layers of black mascara. Another actor commanded attention in his heavy mid-calf leather boots, studded belt and chain, and tight sweater. He was up for the role of Angel, and already looked the part.

“My middle name is Angel. This part was meant for me,’’ James Valentin said with a laugh as he pointed out photographs on a bulletin board of himself in past productions of the Company Theatre, where he does set design among other things.

As actors were led to the stage to sing the 16 bars of music that would determine their fate, the laughter and music in the green room was replaced by deep breaths and toe-tapping.

On stage, actors stood alone in a spotlight. Most actors shuffled their feet on their mark on center stage as they sang, and some stood far behind it just on the edge of the bright lights. When they looked out into the dark auditorium, they could see only the directors, staring intently.

Nerves sometimes kicked in, but the camaraderie remained strong.

Two potential Rogers high-fived as they passed each other. “You did awesome!’’ said one Maureen hopeful to another. No matter how many supportive words are exchanged, though, the actors leaned with an ear to the stage to hear whenever someone started to sing.

Most of those auditioning weren’t old enough to remember the time period of the musical, but that didn’t prevent them from wowing the directors.

“If they’re performing it at the level they were auditioning it, we are all set,’’ said Zoe Bradford, co-founder and one of three artistic directors of the theater. Bradford said she was impressed by the talent level and preparation, which showed “people are hungry to be in it.’’

“I can see the potential sparkling ahead,’’ she said.

Some of the actors, however, weren’t quite so assured.

“They said ‘Come prepared,’ but I was on the computer five minutes before I left trying to find the lyrics,’’ Allison Wheaton of Rockland said after her “terrible’’ audition, in which she sang off of a crumpled piece of paper.

Wheaton, a 45-year-old graphic designer, had never sung or been on stage before, but said she was excited to “scratch it off the bucket list.’’

Miranda Rich, a student at Hanover High School who was in the theater’s production of “Footloose,’’ hid her nerves with a confident stride and a sassy attitude as she auditioned for the equally charismatic Maureen.

“I was shaking. You never know what the directors are thinking,’’ she said.

The directors try not to intimidate the actors, said Bradford, who, with her colleagues, sang along with Wheaton to help her stay on key.

“We love to see what the actor brings to the role. That’s why casting day is so important to us. It’s the hardest day, but in the end you’ve got that group of people you’re going to work with and make the magic happen.’’

Singing wasn’t the only way to make that magic happen. After the directors made the first cut, they herded the remaining 40 actors on stage to see them dance.

The actors kicked, spun, and shimmied together to “La Vie Bohème’’ as they quickly learned each step with few stumbles or collisions. The actors then had a chance to freestyle and show their personality with their own dance moves. Many grabbed a partner to mimic the flirtatious dancing in the show.

After a second cut, actors shuffled out of the theater, but the 25 who survived returned the next night for the final audition, where they spent hours performing scenes from the show until the directors felt ready to make their decisions.

One particularly difficult choice was the casting of Mimi. Though they saw many promising actors during open auditions, said Bradford, the directors widened their search as far as New York and looked at 100 more actors to find the perfect Mimi.

The role was not filled until the beginning of this month, when Charisse Shields of Lunenburg was cast.

“This is my first really professional production,’’ she said. “I’ve only done community theater before. The theater is bigger than anything I’m used to.’’

As rehearsals have progressed, even those who have worked with the Company Theatre before have been impressed with the show and their castmates.

Jennifer Kenneally of Holbrook, who has performed in “Hair’’ and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show’’ at the theater, said she can already see the show coming to life.

“There are certain songs and certain moments in the show where when you finally get to do them, it sort of makes you get all giddy,’’ she said earlier this week. “The first time the cast sang ‘Rent’ together was one of those moments.’’

“Rent’’ will play at the Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive, Norwell, from March 19 to April 18. Tickets are on sale online and at the box office. For more information, visit or call 781-871-2787.